For one reason or another, we tend to associate getting psyched up for a sports performance with loud music, maybe a passionately yelling coach, jumping up and down and getting all worked up for the event we are about to tackle.
Oh no, I do not just mean a competition. Think of how you may psych yourself up for a run, or a heavy lifting session. It may lack the yelling coach, but it might include some deafness-inducing tracks blaring in your ears and some boxing-type moves to get warmed up.
While there is a certain level of arousal that needs to be maintained before an athletic endeavor (graph to come), those same undertakings require a certain level of focus and calm.
Ever heard of the phenomenon where golfers claim the hole is huge, making it easier for them to drop the ball in? Or how some baseball players say that the ball was moving slowly, or increased in size, before they had a hit? While this phenomenon is still being researched, the current theory is that it has to do with perception, and focus.
Ah yes, focus. Way back in one of my earlier posts you may recall we discussed the four different types of focus: broad-external, narrow-external, broad-internal, and narrow-internal. Each athletic situation calls for a specific type of focus, and it can change at any time in the game. While running, you may need to regulate your breathing (narrow-internal) then switch back to the environment around you to make sure there are no cars about to pull out in front of you (broad-external).
Going back to the large-target phenomenon. Mickey Mantle, addressing a 565 foot home run, said, “I never really could explain it. I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit.” A study from Purdue found that golfers actually see the cup as being bigger; after a round, 46 golfers were shown a poster with 9 holes (sizes 9-13 cm) and were asked to pick which one was the size of a real cup (10.8 cm); the golfers with the best scores picked the larger cups, while golfers with poorer scores thought the cup to be smaller (Golf Study).
Ah, perception. It is a whole field in and of itself. Is our perception of something reality? Can’t the same thing be viewed differently by each viewer, and if so, what then is the reality of the thing being viewed? This is not a philosophical blog, so ponder those questions in your free time. However, what the above study and the large-target phenomenon suggests is that our perception and our performance influence each other.
The next question then, is which comes first: Do better players see the target as larger, or does seeing the target as larger make a player better?
Like nature and nurture, this is a case of, “A combination.” Many good/great athletes may unknowingly be seeing the target as larger since they have the mechanics of the game down and can focus solely on the target. If they are confident in their skills, that focus will translate to a larger target and more success at their game. However, it is also quite possible for an athlete to improve their game by working on their focus and perception of the target. Fully immersing oneself in the belief that the target is easier to strike helps you develop the confidence to be more successful.
So if seeing the target as larger takes concentration and focus, does getting psyched up for an event improve performance as well? There’s a range of arousal that needs to be reached to achieve adequate states of performance. For example, if the athlete is cold in body, sitting, not excited, not moving, watching the crowd, listening to the announcers, or otherwise distracted they may be under-aroused and therefore under-perform. On the other hand, it is quite possible for that athlete to be bouncing all over the place, antsy, pumped up way over the top and therefore unable to control themself for a satisfactory performance. See here:
Optimally, the athlete needs to be just aroused enough to have their body and mind ready for the event, but not over-stimulated to the point of freezing or uncontrollable actions.
The take-away point here is that is it in your ability to alter your view of the challenges that are before you. That hill is not as steep as you think it is. Reaching that stop sign is not as far as it seems. That hoop is five times the size of your basketball. Turn on your favorite jams to get your blood flowing, then turn your eye and mind to what you need to conquer. You will.